"You must be here for dinner," Tom Crilley says, leaning against the wall outside of Ratinaud French Cuisine.
Two bottles of sparkling wine clink together in my bag as I walk down Gottingen toward him. He introduces himself and leads me inside, where my friends Ron and Kristina are perched on two of the 10 barstools that surround the kitchen table.
Crilley runs Ratinaud---a business made up of the charcuterie shop, a catering kitchen and a pop-up restaurant called The Kitchen Table---with chef Frédéric Tandy.
The Kitchen Table was set for the first time early this year, and tickets quickly sold out. Ratinaud's already stellar reputation for charcuterie increased exponentially as local food lovers were given a delicious reminder of the other culinary talents Tandy honed in the kitchens of Bish and Fleur de Sel. Nine friends and I booked one of the two Saturdays in June that were available for a private dinner.
"The Kitchen Table came about for a few reasons," Crilley says. "The main one was to bring a new culinary experience to Halifax: French food prepared with local ingredients using classic methods. The Kitchen Table allows Fred to get back to his roots.
"The dinners allow guests to see more of the shop and kitchen, and watch the action live, a few feet away, and interact. It's a real personal experience. In such a small setting we can get to know our guests and really share the evening with them."
When everyone has gathered around the table, Crilley fills wine and water glasses and sets a relaxed tone. Tandy works behind a prep table in the other half of the kitchen, finishing plates of thin, silky sheets of coppa with fresh pesto and crumbly slices of sharp, nutty Tomme de Brebis cheese.
We opted for the Rustic Menu, a three-course meal with an amuse bouche. While Ratinaud also offers a five-course Nouvelle Cuisine menu, the simplicity of French country cooking has a particular appeal that Tandy handily brings to life.
Ethereal fillets of creamy poached salmon are paired with confit cherry tomato bombs that explode with sweet tartness against traditional mayonnaise and lightly dressed, peppery greens that bring perfect balance to the plate. Hanger steak glows bright pink in the middle, barely tapping medium-rare on the shoulder. The meat is the star of a refined, homey plate of honeyed carrots and potato puree, topped with the buttery barnyard tang of bleu d'Auvergne, tamed by rich, sweet confit shallots.
"Fred wants his food to be authentic, which means no shortcuts," says Crilley.
We finish our meal with two family-style platters of religieuses---choux pastry cream puffs stacked one on top of another, stuffed with chocolate and coffee custards---from Gourmandises Avenue. Flavours are shared with final sips of wine and a few last laughs.
"One thing we want to do more of is family-style meals," says Crilley. "We did a few dinners in February where we served large platters for everyone to share and this was fantastic."
The last scheduled meal is July 27. The Kitchen Table will be closed for August as they plan the next series of meals, but there are still lots of events on the calendar. "In August we're doing Les saucisses en folies, our culinary blowout for Sausage Fest 2013. There will be more food and beer than our guests can handle," says Crilley.
Ratinaud is only getting bigger. And, doubtlessly, better. So if a chance arises, make sure you pull up a chair to The Kitchen Table. Sérieusement.